The Energy Crisis on a Global Scale
Solar cookers offer practical solution
By Bob Metcalf
The current California energy crisis, accompanied by rolling blackouts, has received widespread attention by the media and politicians. In contrast, there is another energy crisis in the world, almost invisible in rich countries like ours, which is the focus of a unique non-profit organization in Sacramento, Solar Cookers International (SCI).
Enter SCI’s modest office off 21st Street between S & T, and on the walls you will see dazzling photos from Africa and Latin America. They show women and children carrying up to 40 lbs of wood on their heads and backs, which they’ve had to spend hours collecting miles from their homes. These photos represent the 2.5 billion people, over one-third of humanity, who depend upon traditional fuels for an essential life function: cooking.
For those who depend upon fuelwood, it takes about two pounds of wood per person each day to cook ones food. For a family of five, that’s 3,650 pounds of wood a year! Poor people now scramble for wood to intending to do so, seriously damage their environment, causing local deforestation. In 40 of the world’s poorest countries, over 70% of the country’s fuel comes from dwindling supplies of fuelwood, or, in towns and cities, from charcoal inefficiently made from wood. In Tanzania, with 32 million people, over 90% of the country’s energy comes from wood/charcoal. That’s about 60 million pounds of wood burned to ashes every day! This is not sustainable.
The good news coming out of Solar Cookers International is that with sunshine, there is a simple alternative to fire for cooking. In many developing countries, solar cookers could be used 200-300 days a year.
SCI’s roots are traced to the Arizona women Barbara Kerr and Sherry Cole back in 1976, when they developed the first practical solar cooker, the solar box cooker, made of cardboard, aluminum foil, and a piece of glass. I bought a solar box cooker from them in 1978, the first to come to California. I was astonished that solar cooking was easier than cooking inside with our electric stove and oven during Sacramento’s solar season, March-October. SCI was established in 1987, when Bev Blum of Stockton led the effort to establish a non-profit organization which would share this transforming information with the world.
In 1994, SCI volunteers developed the world’s simplest solar cooker, The Cookit, which could be used in emergency situations such as was occurring in Rwanda. The Cookit is a foil covered cardboard panel which directs sunshine onto a dark covered pot which is inside an oven roasting bag. The clear bag lets sunlight in, and traps the heat. Two to three hours of sunshine is sufficient to cook food for 5-6 people with a Cookit. In the past five years, SCI has provided solar cooking resources and training to help over 16,000 refugee women and their families in East Africa.
Recent research has demonstrated that the Cookit can also pasteurize contaminated water by placing a dark jar or pot in the Cookit for several hours, without the need of a roasting bag. This application could be important for an estimated 1.2 billion people who do not have access to safe drinking water and suffer sickness and death as a result.
I invite those who are unfamiliar with solar cooking to get a Cookit from SCI to use this year. For each Cookit sold for $20 (online ordering here), SCI is able to provide one refugee family in Kenya! Ethiopia with a Cookit, pot, and training. By using a Cookit, you can reduce peak load electrical demand this summer, and get some delicious meals in return. You will also learn why those of us who know about solar cookers are passionate to spread them worldwide to promote social and environmental justice. Then join us— we’ve still got a few billion people to reach!
Bob Metcalf is a professor of biological sciences at California State University Sacramento and volunteer for SCI.